Archive for August, 2010

James Barclay – Nightchild

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Nightchild (2001) by James Barclay is the third novel of Chronicles of the Raven, the fantasy series about an independent mercenary group fighting with an honourable code. The books about the Raven are fairly standalone, having their own beginning and ending, but it is best to read them in order. I’ve read the previous books quite some time ago, mostly because Barclay isn’t that good a writer to keep on going. I will elaborate about that later in my review.

Nightchild takes place some six years after the events of the second novel, Noonshade. The Raven have virtually disbanded, it’s members taken up a more regular life. When one of them gets threatened they slowly join together again to protect her from harm. The story is fairly straightforward. The Raven novels follow more or less standard fantasy quest plotlines, although Barclay puts in some twists. These are however never not that remarkable. If you have read the previous books you sort of expect them to happen. An important theme in the book is the Raven, the special group where the individuals become stronger working together.  To me it felt more like Barclay is hyping the Raven himself, but somehow it never feels convincing. They are presented as the best, while Barclay has a habit of depicting their weaknesses and even their strengths do not seem to play out that well. It’s not like such things don’t occur among other groups, but with the hyping it feels out of tone.

So far plot and characters. They are pretty standard and straightforward. These is a quite standard fantasy story. The only special elements are dragons and elves. Magic is quite commonplace and no less than 4 magic organisations exist on the continent most of the story takes place. Continent is also a big word, because from the distances travelled the continent is actually a big island and the world is quite small-scaled. There are no big nations, mostly city-states and armies are usually sized in the hundreds. In such an environment, 4 magic organisations with hundreds of members feels quite out of balance. The magic system itself seems fairly limited. The organisations mostly use similar spells and not many. Some other spells are mentioned but those seem to be too time-consuming to be of general use. This makes the magic action rather repetitive.

Barclay’s writing style is decent. It isn’t as thrilling or exciting as other writers like Jim Butcher or Steven Erikson, whose books are real page-turners, but it’s better than average. He gives all his characters attention, but they never get real depth. They typically have certain traits but it doesn’t get much beyond it. As I have also read one of his recent series, the Ascendants of Estorea, the books of the Raven clearly are written by a less experienced writer who still lacks quality on certain parts. This also shows in the standard fantasy formats he follows. The only other race are the elves, but they seem rather bland and fairly human.

I cannot say this book is very recommendable. It is a decent read when you don’t have much else to read and you don’t want real fantasy pulp but decent standard fantasy. I will continue with the next books of the Raven, but it may take some time before I will have finished them all. After the first two books I lost interest as I needed something better and the style and plots of the books had become tedious.

Michael Psellus – Fourteen Byzantine rulers

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

This review takes us to a time and place few will be familiar with. It is a part of history that is mostly forgotten, because it is about an empire that was only renowned in it’s early years and when it finally fell: the Byzantine Empire. And this is odd, because this empire existed for a long time: from 395 until 1453. An empire that spanned the Middle Ages and thus upheld the classic times until the Renaissance.

I have been gathering a number of histories of the Byzantine Empire written by contemporaries. The first of those histories is Fourteen Byzantine rulers (Chronographia) (c. 1085) by Michael Psellus. It tells of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire ruling between 976 and approximately 1078. Michael Psellus was born in 1018 and became a courtier early on, living at the imperial court and thus being intimate with the emperors and ongoing politics. Actually, Psellus grew in power, starting as a secretary in 1042 and ending up the head advisor to the emperor in 1071, virtually controlling politics to a large extent. Psellus thus plays a big role in history himself and he doesn’t hesitate to mention the parts he played and the reasoning of his actions. This is a perspective few historians ever had. Of course, being part of history, it makes his history less objective, so one has to read between the lines. I will get to that later.

The history of Michael Psellus isn’t actually a history in the true sense. I have read quite a variation of classic histories, but this one lacks. This history is mainly a limited biography which resembles The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Each emperor is characterized and some background is given. The historical events described are almost random in order. He mentions no dates and doesn’t mind going forward and backward in history to explain certain developments. Historical events and character descriptions are mixed randomly, so there is also a lack of structure. A lot of text is used to described the fall and rise of subsequent emperors. As there was no dynastic succession after 1028 this played an important role. In a sense this is very interesting to know in such detail, but it’s a pity other historic events are not treated with the same accuracy.

Psellus main flaw is the fact that he is a courtier. His life revolves about Constantinople and he rarely ventured to other parts of the empire. He has little knowledge of geography and warfare. Battles are mentioned and described, but the circumstances and location remain rather vague. Campaigns lack details and events outside of the capital are hardly known unless it’s about a revolt. We have little view of the Byzantine Empire beyond the capital. Also quite annoying is that he often does not use names of peoples involved in events. If you write a history, tell who it is about. In many cases it remains vague and only because of the notes to the book I got to know who events were about.

Psellus was a courtier and philosopher and most of all part of the peace faction at the court. The latter meant that his point of view is mostly that peace has to be maintained. War has to be prevented and when internal conflicts arise compromises have to be sought so everyone is happy. War is only allowed in dire circumstances. When reading his history one will slowly notice this stance that Psellus upholds when describing the emperors. He praises those who are peaceful and clement and is critical to those who are harsh and willfull. Overall he praises most of the emperors, but on most he is also critical, usually because they are wasting the treasury and ignoring the state of the army for the defense of the empire. While Psellus rises in power one notices that he complains but never seems to act to do something about it. Psellus lacks strength and also the insight in the troubling affairs in outer parts of the empire, because the empire is seriously in decline and while Psellus acknowledges it and sees the causes, he fails to do something about it. Most of the emperors are incapable of restoring the military power of the empire and mainly ignore this. They live vainly in a court that is only self-centered.

Fourteen Byzantine rulers is decently written for a history. The writing style is not troublesome and as Psellus often writes from his own viewpoint there is a smooth pace. He does not manage to keep the reader interested. The fact that he often remains vague about persons and events make it sometimes hard to keep your attention. Overall it certainly is an interesting work and recommendable for anyone interested in Byzantine history and the lives and nature of it’s emperors.

Jim Butcher – Captain’s fury

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Book 4 of the Codex Alera, Captain’s Fury (2007), by Jim Butcher, will be the last of the series, for now, which I will review. The simple reason is that I don’t have the next volume yet. In the previous reviews I have been quite critical of the books, but I do want to remind you that the Fantasy genre in general does not focus on the quality but on the story and entertainment. The Codex Alera certainly does not lack on those points. The series is well written and nowhere boring or dreary. In essence I enjoyed them. The reason why I have been critical is because the first book was of good quality and as such I compared the following books to it. Alas they have been just average, but I’m OK with that. I’ve read fantasy novels which were really cliche and average, so that should not stop anyone from reading this series as well. If you like his other works, this is a nice bonus, but don’t expect too much.

Captain’s Fury starts 2 years after the previous book, just like the previous novels. The jumps in time allow some skipping of standard events, which in a way is not bad to do, but standard elements also help in establishing structure for the story and the reader. As Butcher avoids this, such structure is not there. We only got to work with the story itself which in essence is enough to go by. In those two years not much has actually happened besides a partial round-up of the events at the end of the previous book. There has been no closure yet, and this book is all about bringing closure to the two storylines of Cursor’s Fury.

Captain’s Fury is overall on par with Cursor’s Fury as the situation has not changed. The mood and the style is thus the same, although there is now a clearer path to where Butcher is taking us. The question is only how and luckily this is entertaining enough. There is actually less to criticise as simply no things take place that give room for criticism. Everything has been well established in the previous book, so there is no need to go into details.

The only criticism that I have, and I mentioned it in a previous review, is that Butcher has plenty opportunity for interesting confrontations and dialogues that can spark, but he actually avoids is mostly. He follows a different path, which in a sense avoids cliche’s, but it is an overall weakness in the series. No more talking than necessary, stick to the action. Don’t seek for heavy drama here.

The book gives hardly any new insights into the world of the book. One can almost see it as part 2 of book 3 as everything seems to evolve in a similar way, even if the storylines are different from those of book 2. The war theme is of lesser importance, but the quests of the characters is what drives the book instead. This way Butcher manages to give each book a different feeling while keeping familiar elements.

Jim Butcher – Cursor’s fury

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

The third book of the Codex Alera is Cursor’s Fury (2006) by Jim Butcher. In my reviews of the previous two books I noted a strong first novel and an entertaining but weak sequel. My main question with this book was if Butcher could get back on track with the third installment. Butcher writes entertaining and and fast-paced stories, but truly epic is not really his style yet as his habits with his urban fantasy Dresden novels partially format the stories of these books as well. The second book really hurt from that.

Cursor’s fury takes the story away from the city and back to the open land. At least that should allow for a more well-paced story. Another time leap has been made.  This time over 2 years have passed. How much will have changed now? To my surprise it was rather little. The main character was hardly any different from the end of the second novel. There is a bit more experience, but nothing out of the ordinary.

There are two main storylines, both a follow-up to events of the previous novels.  The second combines several antagonists where I was a bit surprised to see some characters turn up suddenly, although it could be explained. Butcher does try to keep getting his main set of side-characters coming back in the story. This makes it recognizable and a certain joy to the reader, but also convenient as he doesn’t have to set up something new.

The first and main storyline brings full warfare into the story. In the previous books were some skirmishes, but now Butcher can go all out. He does a good job at it and it is well written. The main character soon plays a central role, but the role is a bit too easy, so it felt to me. Obstacles are easily overcome, unlike in the previous novels, and the main character quickly evolves into the main hero. After book 2 the reader saw what would be coming for the next books, but Butcher makes no surprises here and actually pushes the character ahead. Of course this is nowhere annoying, but it is a bit of change from books 1 and 2. A struggle would have been nice for character development, but here it all goes very smoothly. A missed chance, so it feels to me.

After three books one can say to have gotten some decent insight into the world the story takes place. Butcher however keeps things vague. A strong hint is given that the Aleran Empire is somehow descendant from the Roman Empire, something which from the naming had already been guessable. My problem however is that Butcher makes a botched job of it. There is a lack of logic and he also uses certain modern names which have no relationship to Roman names, while at the same time trying to be true to it. It doesn’t make much sense.  There is a lack of consistency. The quotes on the bookcover speaks of solid world-building, but I’m not seeing any of it. Butcher takes it easy. The world-building is clearly lacking.

Also lacking is his magic system. According to the story, everyone is born with powers, but most people seem very weak or unable to use it for special use. Especially in fights he mentions powers for certain warriors, but ignores it for others who are clearly superior and so must be using them as well. This discrepancy annoyed me as well. A lot of people seem to be unable to use there abilities for something useful. It is mentioned that highborn people belong to the strongest, but apparently a large number of them are easily killed, while certain highborn people are almost untouchable. All very convenient, but sorely lacking in consistency.

The third book also spends more time with another enemy race. The first enemy race was well developed and original, but the second is rather standard, while I had hoped for something more. Again Butcher takes the easy way. It is not annoying, but mainly nothing out of the ordinary to make the story stand out.

Jim Butcher writes fast and writes entertaining stories, but it feels to me he should slow down and put more effort into his epic fantasy tale. While the first book was strong, the second was weak. The third book is better than the second, but still not close to the level of the first book. The quality is sinking fast to just an average fantasy series. This is a pity as he is managing to keep a constant good level with his Dresden novels, but fails to do the same for the Codex Alera.

Jim Butcher – Academ’s fury

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Academ’s Fury (2005) by Jim Butcher is the second book of the Codex Alera, an Epic Fantasy series.  In the first book, Furies of Calderon, Butcher set up the cast of main characters and the position they would take in the story. In the second book a time leap has been made of two years. For Epic Fantasy this is not very common, but it allows the story to skip cliche or standard developments and focus on the main events.

The main character has grown up considerably and has gained a lot more confidence, although his life is far from easy. Whereas the first novel took place in the borderregion of the Aleran Empire, this book takes mainly place in the capital, the heart of the empire, where he studies at the highly acclaimed Academy where he may gain status within the empire, even as he does not have any powers, like everyone else does. The original setting is still there though as a second storyline tells of events taking place at the same time as in the capital, keeping us in contact with the other side characters of the first book. The fact that the events of both storylines occur at the same time is clearly a plot convenience, but it is not something bothersome.

The plot partially focusses on a new big threat and even while the main storyline seems to follow some different directions at first they do converge, making the other things that have happened acting more as side-events. Butcher prefers to stick to fast-paced action to move the plot onwards. He does it well, but he doesn’t seem to like to have his characters talking too much and having action with no violence in it. The story takes place in the capital. There should be plenty of politics and complex situations, but Butcher keeps it to a minimum. A certain faction that is presented as powerful, does not seem to have much in reality in the Aleran society. It did not convince me much.

As the first story took place among farmers and Butcher took some time to present their lives, the lives of the people in the capital remain vague. The city itself remains vague as well and it is hardly described besides some standard elements. This did disappoint me, because it makes the setting generic, giving the reader little to imagine for himself. The story and the action seems to be more important and although it all entertains, it is written on an almost empty background.

There is also little character development. While the first book managed to combine it with the action, there is little in this story. One could stay that the development took place during the two year gap, as the main character is different from the first book, but the contrast was big and perhaps more would have been possible. Character development is not a requirement in fantasy novels, but one could have expected more, especially as there was much to be found in the first book. Usually the first book establishes the characters so that there is space for development in the following novels. Oddly enough, it’s the other way around here.

In my review of the first book I mentioned some flaws in the plot and they are also in this book. A major plot element noted in the beginning of the book is soon completely forgotten and doesn’t play a role anymore. At end there is something mentioned again, but that too sounds a bit odd. Butcher seems to want to put in a lot of interesting leads while they may not be used at all. At the end of the second storyline there is also another plot convenience and I also seemed to have missed out on certain things that had happened or were mentioned earlier but seem to have been forgotten about later on.

For an action-packed fantasy story this is an entertaining book and good read, but it has many flaws for those who care to notice. This is the weakest book I have read by Jim Butcher so far. The first book was about on par with the Dresden novels, but this one is no more than average fantasy. The standard set in the first book was never reached. The book also has a similar feel as his Dresden novels. All events take place within a few days with intense action. While the Dresden novels manage to add drama and development, there was hardly any of that here.

Jim Butcher – Furies of Calderon

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Jim Butcher is not an unknown author for me, as I already have read a large number of his Dresden novels. Furies of Calderon (2004) is the first installment of the Codex Alera, a series in which Butcher makes his attempt at writing Epic Fantasy.

The story is about a world where everyone has some extent power over the elemental beings of nature. Magic is thus quite commonplace, making life easier and forming a measure of social standing. The main character is a boy who has no powers and has to rely on his regular skills. When a foreign enemy threatens the nation he suddenly finds himself in dire situations.

Although the back cover only talks about the main character, the book also has several side characters whose viewpoint are also shown and who play a big role as well. Butcher handles this quite well. There is some good characterization and development as well. There are several bad guys who get their attention time and Butcher takes his time to flesh them out, which is not that common in Fantasy. I got some feel that this might be some George R.R. Martin influence here, who also tries to make the bad guys grey. It can be interesting to see how this will play out.

Butcher also introduces a different race with a different culture in the book. This is well done and the new race is quite original. As the existence of other enemy races is mentioned I’m interested in how he will develop them.

As we are used from Butcher, the plot moves fast with a lot of action and twists. It is fairly straightforward and not overly complex, while avoiding predictability.  It is however not without flaws. Certain events did bother me later on. There is a scene with all major characters in the center of the novel where there seems to be a gap. There is a shift in events while changing viewpoints and suddenly we have moved on and we have been missed out on how things have went. They are never explained later on. Later on is another twist for the main character which is also not clearly explained. If I missed it while reading, then it has been hidden well. One could perhaps explain things oneself, but that should not be required.

Butcher also has a habit that where things can go wrong, they will go wrong, putting in as many obstacles as possible. Sure, the bad guys can be smart and predicting things, but at some point it seemed too much. Fortunately this improves later on in the novel.

Butcher knows how to write action with twists. In that sense it leaves a feeling for his Dresden novels, as he sticks to what he does well. He does a good job of characterization with multiple characters and viewpoints. The plot moves fast and is entertaining, but has some minor flaws. Even so, he made a strong first novel of an Epic Fantasy series which will attract readers to the next volume. Although its level is certainly above mainstream quality, it is not in the mold of a classic series which will mark the genre, but perhaps it will grow and evolve.

Wikipedia references

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Almost every day I read the frontpage of Wikipedia to discover some interesting new information. In some cases these leads to the discovery of new books. A recent example of this was a historical event. Wanting to know more about it, I opened the whole article. As the event was about Byzantine history and I had recently purchased a number of histories I checked the references for possible books. Here I stumbled upon the work by Theophanes. I checked the online bookstores and discovered there was a translation available under the title The chronicle of Theophanes (c. 815) and it was of an affordable price. And thus I purchased it.

What makes this book noteworthy? The author describes the period 602-813 AD. This is the so-called dark age of the Byzantine Empire, because there were many wars and internal religious struggles which destroyed almost all writings from that period. The history by Theophanes is as such the only remaining history of that time that still remains.

The book itself is fairly thin, less than 200 pages with many notes, which is not much for a period of 200 years. But the period itself is rather interesting as it described how the Byzantine and Parthian Empires weakened themselves that they were easy prey to the rise of Islam, which occurred with stunning speed.

An interesting sidenote is that this book is the only English translation of Theophanes and that it has been done by Harry Turtledove after completing his PhD. Many people probably don’t know him, but I do, as Turtledove started writing Science Fiction and Fantasy afterwards and is a fairly known name in those genres. I even have a few of his novels.

James Joyce – Dubliners

Friday, August 6th, 2010

James Joyce didn’t write many novels, but about all he wrote has become well known. I will not elaborate on that part. Dubliners (1914) is one of his earlier works and not a novel either, but a story collection. As the title tells, it’s about the inhabitants of Dublin.

There is no clear period given for when events have taken place, but one can say it’s between 1890 and 1900. It’s a bit much to name the events in the stories as such. I thought Dubliners to be a bit unusual. The book starts with a number of very short stories. So short they can hardly be called stories. I would prefer to name them fragments. There is hardly a beginning or an end, just enough so one can speak of closure. Gradually the stories become a bit longer and thus get a bit more fleshed out until the last few stories which feel more complete. The fragmentary stories have a strange effect. Even if they are short, they are clearly styled and purposeful. I have read other works by James Joyce and even if it has been a while, I recognize his strong hand. I sometimes call it the smell of literature. Some writers have that strength in their prose that within a few sentences you recognize that the words have been chosen carefully to shape the intent of the story.

The style of writing remains fairly constant throughout the story. They carry a similar atmosphere. The mood of the stories vary but overall there is a dark feeling to it, like something depressing. Even in stories where the mood is jollier and more casual this feeling of, I could best call it “doom”, keeps looming around. Some stories are quite negative and dark, or sometimes just tragic.  The Dubliners are in general not very happy. That the stories aren’t long allows moments to recover oneself. Every story starts afresh, taking time before heading to the downturn.

Dubliners is however not a depressing book. There are plenty of interesting elements, giving one a view of those times. Two themes dominate throughout several stories.

The first is Irish nationalism versus English dominance. One who has read about the history of Ireland will know that this was the dawn before Ireland regained independence from the United Kingdom. There is a clear patriotism among a number of characters aiming to revive Celtic culture and denounce everything English. On the other hand there are those who profit from the dominance, seeing this as something to improve their lives.

The second theme is religion. Catholicism plays a role in many stories and in some cases also Protestantism. In that sence it’s again the Irish versus English theme. Catholicism has a strong impact on the daily lives and although there is light criticism, it is always followed by piety. One could see such as Catholicism sets them apart from the English, so upholding that would help them to have a certain extent of independence.

The stories cover many parts of the society of that time, although it revolves mainly around the middle class. Normal people who live unremarkable lives. The longer stories are able to deliver a stronger message. As more things were taking place it allowed me to get more into them. The shortest stories kept a distance because they ended quickly.

Would a set of longer stories worked better instead of short ones or the other way around? It is impossible to tell. The change in length create their own effect. The final and longest story provides a good closure. The way it was set up forced me to take a break after each story. Sometimes I read two, but never more in a row. Thus it sort of forced me to take some time and think about what I had read. I would call that well crafted.

Is Dubliners a great book? I do not think so, but it surely is an interesting read from which each reader can find their own insights.